Text & Photo:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
** I thought I didn’t like bourbon.
Wedded to tequila and mezcal and charmed by their seemingly infinite possibilities, I didn’t give this most American of spirits much of a chance. The memory of the burn from sips of Wild Turkey nipped while making bourbon balls with my mom during childhood holidays didn’t exactly entice.
So when Francisco handed me a drink he’d ordered from the bar at San Juan, Puerto Rico’s recently renovated and reopened Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, and said, “Bourbon, honey, and lemon–try it; it’s delicious,” I almost said, “No, thanks.”
But something about the smell was so seductive, I couldn’t decline. One sip and I was reminded that one of life’s great lessons is try and try again.
Condado Vanderbilt makes its “Gold Rush” cocktail with Woodford Reserve (though the menu says Knob Creek). When we returned home to New York, Francisco decided to make his own version of the drink. This is what we’ll be drinking tonight to say farewell to 2014 and to ring in 2015:
[Makes two cocktails]
-2 shots of Buffalo Trace bourbon whiskey
-3 ounces of fresh squeezed Meyer lemon juice (The Condado Vanderbilt does not use Meyer lemons, but the distinctive aroma and taste of the Meyer lemon elevates the drink considerably)
-a dash of St. Germain liqueur
-1 teaspoon of mountain forest amber honey
Mix well in a shaker with plenty of ice. Serve over more ice in an old-fashioned glass that has been rimmed with a light coating of honey and spritzed with Meyer lemon.
Chin-chin and salud! Here’s to a wonderful new year full of health, happiness, and wholeness!
Apologies to Lily Girma, who invited me, more than a month ago, to participate in a “blog hop” of writers. I was supposed to post my contribution on April 21 and here we are, five weeks later, and I’m just getting in on the game. More about how that may reflect on my process in a moment.
But first, the blog hop. The way I’ve been thinking about this project is that it’s the digital equivalent of chain letters that my generation liked to send around when we were in elementary school… except this is cooler and more useful (one hopes). The idea is that each writer who is invited to participate then turns around and invites three other writers to talk about their process, but since I was often the person in elementary school who ended up disrupting the chain letter, I’ll probably play that role here, too, unless you’re a writer friend who hasn’t participated yet and you’d like to.
So here’s how the blog hop works: Each writer answers four questions. That’s it. I already write a lot (not lately, though) about the writing and editing processes–and, specifically, my writing and editing processes–over on my other blog Cuaderno Inedito (no, that blog is not written in Spanish). I’m fascinated by people’s processes, especially those of “creative” people, and I’d like to think that by sharing my own processes, I’ve contributed to other writers’ development, too. I encourage you to scroll through the archives there and sign up for new posts (yes, there will be more); in the meantime, here are my answers to the blog hop questions.
1. What am I writing now?
Right now–as in this week–I’m doing research and writing for several articles for The Latin Kitchen, one of my regular outlets. I’m finessing a couple of queries that were received well by editors at major national publications who have asked for some extra details. I’m following up with sources for two new assignments: publication profiles for MediaBistro’s “How to Pitch” service. I’m finalizing plans for two research trips and I’m also researching two feature-length assignments. As you see, then, being a writer isn’t always about writing. One of the many perks of my job is that it also involves lots of reading.
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
The “genre” question gets increasingly tricky each year, as I continue to diversify the subjects about which I write and the publications where they are published. I write about (in no particular order of preference): food and farming; travel; science, the environment, and technology; Latin America; arts and culture (from hanging-on-hallowed-walls exhibits to obscure street art); politics; and profiles of people and organizations. I write about these topics for a variety of publications and formats (print and online), and I write books, too.
What unifies all of my topical interests and is consistent about my approach regardless of the “seriousness” of the outlet where my byline appears is my curiosity about and commitment to the overlooked. Sometimes, that means a place, person, or project who has completely eluded the gaze of mainstream media. Sometimes, it means an overlooked aspect of the life or work of someone who’s regularly in the headlines. What I’m always driving for is the story that hasn’t been told, the backstory, or understory, or the hidden story. I’ve often used a kitchen metaphor to describe my approach: While everyone’s interested in the star chef, I’m interested in his or her support team.
Finally, even when I’m being critical, I hope that my work is set apart by its respectfulness, both for my subjects and for the responsibility and potential impact of reporting. There have been questions I’ve been dying to ask subjects that I haven’t asked, simply because I didn’t think they were appropriate… no matter how much a reader may want to know the answers. There have been stories entrusted to me that I would have loved to have shared, but I understood that doing so would put someone at risk, a risk to which they had not consented. And there are stories I haven’t pitched or published yet because they require time, research, and immersion I haven’t been able to devote to them yet.
3. Why do I write what I do?
I write what I do because I’m not sure there’s any other profession that allows a person to explore and indulge in such a wide range of interests. I also write what I do because it’s important to me that overlooked stories find a platform for being shared, and in all of my work (I was a creative arts therapist who focused on writing therapy before I was a freelance writer), I’ve always worked to be the conduit through which someone could find their voice and literally articulate his or her story. I write what I do because I want to make sure that certain stories don’t slip into obscurity. And I write, period, because I don’t know how to experience and process the world without seeing everything as a story. That switch–the one that makes me ask about everything, “What’s the story here?”–never turns off.
4. How does my writing process work?
I’m not sure that writing is a process for me, as much as it is a lifestyle, by which I mean that I am always writing, if not on paper or screen, then in my head. But in terms of what one colleague has accurately described as “ass to chair” time (meaning, the time spent actually writing), my process isn’t at all precious or picturesque. My desk, which I share with my husband, is in the middle of our living room, which means that it’s piled high with whatever we’re both reading at the time, as well as one or two cameras, stacks of notebooks, research materials, business cards, and all sorts of daily living detritus (which, at present, includes a pair of our son’s socks–clean, thankfully– a near empty tube of hydrocortisone, admission badges from a museum we visited this weekend, and a bag of jacks, sans ball). I’d love to tell you that I have some sort of fine-tuned routine, but when you have two kids and a husband who also works at home, you just write when you can. Sometimes the kids fall asleep at 10:30 and you write like mad until 2 am, but your husband wants to talk about an idea that occurred to him, and in the telling, he needs to show you an Ali boxing video from 1975 that’s 16 minutes long. In short: I write when I can and have mastered fitting into two or four hours what takes many people twice as much time. I am also the master of the stolen moment… and of typing one-handed while I hold one kid on my lap.
Want to know more about what and where I write? Here’s the complete list.
Text & Instagram Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
We’ve lived in Long Island City for just over 10 years now, and in the past few years, we’ve seen the neighborhood transform dramatically. One of the main changes we’ve seen is the proliferation of hotels. Long Island City’s proximity to Manhattan–one stop from Grand Central on the 7 train and just a five-minute ride from Midtown on the N or Q– not to mention favorable changes to zoning laws, made developers willing to take a gamble on this industrial area. And though I don’t have any hard numbers, it seems like their bets are, for the most part, paying off. We frequently see tourists with slightly bewildered expressions lugging their suitcases down the subway steps, and the number of restaurants and services around the neighborhood has increased.
Most of these hotels are chains, offering little character, barely distinguishable from one another in anything other than name. An exception is the just-opened Paper Factory Hotel on the corner of 37th Avenue and 36th Street, right next to the 36th Street M/R subway station. The 122-room boutique hotel is, as its name suggests, housed in a former paper factory, and many of the design elements make reference to the building’s past. A paper machine sits in the basement, which will soon be transformed into a restaurant featuring organic and vegetarian and vegan-friendly cuisine. A massive tower of books is the visual centerpiece of the spiral staircase that leads from the restaurant to the lobby level, which already has an operational café and will soon have a bar as well.
The website Hotel Chatter reports that rates are “lowish”: $145-189, which are low for New York. And though I haven’t yet toured the rooms (I made an impromptu evening visit yesterday and just checked out common spaces), the photos in the Hotel Chatter post suggest to me that Paper Factory offers way more room at a much more comfortable price point than Manhattan hotels. I happened to speak with the designer while I was visiting and he said many of the guests who have stayed there so far (officially, the hotel hasn’t had its hard launch yet) are folks sent by MoMA and Kaufman Astoria Studios (which is about to open a fabulous weekend food and flea market), so expect a cultured, artistically-engaged clientele.
I’ve never been a presidential history buff; if you asked me to name my favorite president, I’d be hard-pressed to make a choice. I know the same facts (and myths) most Americans are taught in school, but they’re not particularly useful with respect to identifying what makes a “good” president. Plus, those facts–or the omission of them– are often influenced by regional beefs. Take poor old President Grant, for example. He didn’t get a whole lot of love in any of the history classes I had while growing up in South Carolina.
But this is what travel does for you… or for me, at least: It pieces disparate bits of information together, filling in gaps of knowledge and understanding. And if it doesn’t correct the biases that tinged what we initially learned, at least it tends to offer the counterpoint.
What’s even better is when this happens unexpectedly.
* I’ve just filed the Capital-Saratoga/Central New York chapter of the guidebook; one of the places this chapter took me was Grant Cottage in Wilton, New York.
Technically, I didn’t need to go to Grant Cottage; I’d fact-checked the entry about the state historic site via emails exchanged with its director. But the previous author’s narrative intrigued me, so much so that I had to call Francisco, who had taken Mariel to the playground so I could write, to read it to him:
“One of the oddest and most moving of house museums in all of New York State is Grant Cottage… perched on the hilltop in the middle of Mt. McGregory Correctional Facility. To get to the cottage, you must stop at a guard booth and enter a walled minimum-security complex topped with shiny barbed wire.
President Ulysses S. Grant came to Mt. McGregor in June of 1885 and spent the last six weeks of his life here, completing his memoirs. Afflicted with throat cancer, he was working frantically against time, trying to finish his book so that his family would have something to live on after he was gone. Grant had become bankrupt paying back the money he urged his friends to invest in his son’s company; the company went belly-up after his son’s partner absconded with the funds.
…[T]of this day, the house remains exactly as it was when he and his family left it. In one room are Grant’s toothbrush, his nightshirts, and a half-empty bottle of medicinal cocaine…. In another are the notes that Grant scribbled in pencil after he could no longer talk, and a bedspread stained with the wreaths brought by mourners.
Before his death, Grant–often sleeping as few as two hours a night–did succeed in finishing his memoirs. They are considered to be among the finest ever written by an American general and earned the family handsome royalties….”
Francisco was as fascinated as I was.
Later the same afternoon, I happened to be walking on 66th Street in Manhattan when I noticed this plaque, which I’d never seen before:
As the text on the plaque suggests, Grant had started his memoirs at his Manhattan residence, but the New York City summer was too hot for him, and his doctors recommended he decamp Upstate. He and his family left 66th Street–he, for the last time–and took the train from Grand Central to Wilton. He would finish his memoirs and die there before being brought back to New York City (with a stop in Albany for a brief lying-in-state) for burial.
Francisco and I had visited Grant’s tomb (formally called General Grant National Memorial), which is also in Manhattan… not necessarily because it was a president’s tomb, but because of its architecture and the interior mosaics.
So we had two pieces of Grant’s New York puzzle. The only one we hadn’t locked in was the cottage. We decided Wilton was close enough for a quick day trip, so we packed up and headed north on I-87.
It may seem odd, or at least anticlimactic, to drive nearly four hours one way to see just three rooms of the cottage where Grant wrote his memoirs and then died, but neither of us felt that way at all. The tour guide kept referring to the house as a “time capsule,” and though cliched, that’s exactly what it is. In addition to the ephemera the previous edition’s author mentioned in her entry about the cottage, there are perfectly preserved, albeit faded, funereal wreaths sent by mourners. Preserved in beeswax during the mourning period (Grant died in the cottage on July 23, 1885) so the flowers wouldn’t wilt in the high summer heat. They still retain discernible color 128 years later.
I learned enough about Grant during our visit (for example, he was the first president to appoint an African American to an ambassador post) to want to learn more. And though I don’t have time for that just now–the next guidebook chapter is due in two weeks–it’s going on my to-do list… starting with his memoirs.
If you want to visit Grant Cottage, here’s what you need to know:
On the grounds of Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility, Wilton, New York
Wednesday-Sunday, 10 AM-4 PM, Memorial Day through Labor Day
Saturday-Sunday, 10 AM-4 PM, Labor Day through Columbus Day
You’ll pay your $5 admission fee (adults; kids under 6 free) at the visitor center just below the hill where the cottage sits. The visitor center has a small gift shop (with obligatory copies of Grant’s memoirs, including some first editions) and an area with some displays that explain Grant’s roles in American history. Your admission includes a 7 minute video introduction to the site. Following the video, you can take the short walk up the hill to the cottage for your guided tour, which is about 20-30 minutes in length.
And what about the correctional facility?
You’ll have to present a valid, government-issued photo ID to a guard who mans the checkpoint at the entrance to the facility. He or she will register your information, including your car’s make, model, color, and license plate number, and then you can enter the grounds. It’s not nearly as dramatic as it sounds and the practice may soon end altogether; Governor Cuomo just announced last week that Mt. McGregor is one of several correctional facilities that will be closed for budgetary reasons within a year.
Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo: Flickr user Cote
I dislike the “tourist vs. traveler” debate, which feels tired and whiny to me, perhaps because I’ve been traveling and writing about travel for such a long time.
Besides, I think it’s important that people travel. Period. Even if they’re wearing a fanny pack. Even if they retreat to the familiarity of McDonald’s for a Big Mac.
“‘Hasn’t it been a good summer!’ said the young man, lazily. ‘We’ve become absolutely French.’
‘And the French are such an aesthetic people,’ said the young lady, listening for a moment to the banana music. ‘They know how to live. Think of all the nice things they have to eat!’
‘Delicious things! Heavenly things!’ exclaimed the young man, spreading some American deviled ham on some biscuits marked Springfield, Illinois. ‘But then they’ve studied the food question for two thousand years.’
‘And things are so cheap here!’ cried the young lady enthusiastically. ‘Think of perfume! Perfume that would cost fifteen dollars in New York, you can get here for five.’
The young man struck a Swedish match and lit an American cigarette.
‘The trouble with most Americans in France,’ he remarked…, ‘is that they won’t lead a real French life. They hang around the big hotels and exchange opinions fresh from the States.’
‘I know,’ she agreed. ‘That’s exactly what it said in The New York Times this morning.’